Food, Money, Diets, & Fasting

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A few years ago the feature article in National Geographic was “The Heavy Cost of Fat.” In this short, but interesting, article the eating patterns of Americans were placed under the microscope. The bottom line was that we are eating more of everything: vegetables, sugars, grains, fruits, fats and oils, and protein. In fact, Americans eat on average 1,775 pounds of food each year, up from 1,497 pounds in 1970, an 18.5% increase. The end result is that one out of three Americans is obese, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have classified obesity as an epidemic. Current estimates say that 400,000 Americans die each year from being overweight. Similarly, consumer spending and consumer debt are at all-time highs. Even the very space in which we live has grown. In 1950, the average size of an American home was around 900 square feet, which is comparable to today’s average sized, 800-square-foot garage. Interestingly, overwhelming amounts of Americans are on diets or are seeking relief from creditors. The number of adults on a low-carbohydrate diet hovers at 24 million, and the number of families who have declared bankruptcy has broken an-all time high! All this overeating, over-spending, and dieting seems to beg the question: what went wrong with us?

Of course, theories abound as to why we are gaining weight and spending more. Some argue that weight gain is dictated by genes, while others point to the “super sizing” of portions at fast food restaurants. Several blame spending on advertisers, children in America watch over 10,000 commercials a year, or the proliferation of credit cards and spending on credit. Or, maybe we feed ourselves and spend more than we make because we are truly empty inside. Maybe Americans, and now the world, overeat and over-consume because inside we are empty, because we are trying to fill a void with food and clothes. Unfortunately, the void inside each of us cannot be filled by what we eat, what we consume, or what we buy. In complete opposition to our current culture, the logic of the Church is simplicity. The Faith has always taught that in order for us to be content, we must do with less. The adage “less is more” would be an apt description of the Church’s position on material goods. Not only is simplicity a chief virtue of the Christian life, but so are stillness, peace, quiet, prayer, and reflection. In a world that is quickly becoming surrounded by noise (even airplane seats have cable television); people quickly become focused on the outside.

Take, for instance, the point of dieting in America. The chief concern is to improve one’s physical or outward appearance. Many of us even associate external beauty with inner peace, looking good means feeling good. Yet, the truth is most people are not happy once they improve their looks and “have it all.” A recent study of Lotto winners found that majority of winners said that winning the Lottery did not make them any happier but actually less content. In fact, these statistics articulate that those who associate happiness with money are the unhappiest!
Now consider the Church’s position on consumption. The primary spiritual exercise of cutting one’s attachment to food and material goods is fasting, fasting not only from what we eat, but also what we buy, what we watch, say, and do. Throughout the year, the Church recommends that the faithful fast every Wednesday and Friday, during Great Lent, in Advent from November 15 until December 25, the first 15 days of August, the last part of June, and on selected holy days of the year, in all over 200 days each year! Of course, most find such recommendations manmade, outdated, pointless, and archaic. Yet, could it be that such viewpoints stem from our lack of appreciation for the condition of our internal life, our inner, spiritual life? After all, the point of fasting is to improve one’s inner spiritual condition. Oddly enough, those who have mastered their attachment to the physical desires of the flesh (food, clothing, and material goods) experience deep joy, lasting peace, and a deep sense of purpose and direction.

The bottom line is that our interest in the condition of our soul should be our primary concern. The spiritual exercise of fasting is the first step in the direction of placing our internal life first. Discipline is the fist step to freedom, and finding out that less truly is more is one of life’s key lessons. If 24 million Americans were willing a few years ago to try a fad, the Atkins diet, in order to improve their lives, why shouldn’t they be willing to try a 2,000-year- old resolution: fasting Christian style?